Angelina Jolie plays the dark fairy from Disney's 'Sleeping Beauty' in 'Maleficent,' which delves into the character's troubled past. (Walt Disney Enterprises)
With visuals both powerful and downright lovely, imagination to spare and a splendidly droll performance by Angelina Jolie, “Maleficent” reworks the story of Sleeping Beauty with grace and humor.
Of course there’s a question as to whether today’s kids even know who Sleeping Beauty is. Is that the story with the dwarfs or the one with the glass slipper?
Truth be told, though, it shouldn’t matter. “Maleficent” builds its own magical world while following a narrative that feels more modern. Major credit has to be given to first-time director Robert Stromberg (he’s worked on the visuals for “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “The Hunger Games,” “Life of Pi” and many more) and screenwriter Linda Woolverton (“The Lion King,” “Alice in Wonderland”). They seem made to do fairy tales together.
Then again, it’s hard to imagine anyone bringing more to the title role than Jolie, who mixes majesty with humor and a just plain stunning look. She’s having a delicious time, and by the way, she’s also serving up a reminder that female action heroes are free to kick butt these days.
Maleficent is a powerful young fairy living in an enchanted land that borders a human kingdom. And in terms of enchantment, we’re talking “Avatar” levels of invention and sparkle here (the 3-D is superb). One day she meets a human boy, Stefan (eventually Sharlto Copley), and as they grow up together, they fall in love.
But then the human king decides to invade the enchanted land. Bad idea. Maleficent and a host of tree-warriors send the humans running. The dying king offers his crown to anyone who can exact revenge. So the ambitious Stefan meets up with his childhood friend, drugs her, and cuts off her wings.
Disfigured and darkened inside, Maleficent becomes a hardened ruler of the land, transforming a crow into a changeling named Diaval (Sam Riley), who becomes her spy and servant.
When she hears that Stefan, who is now king, has had a child with his queen, she shows up for the christening and puts a curse on the young girl: On the day she turns 16 she will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall into a coma. The only thing that can wake her is a kiss from a true love. The catch is, Maleficent doesn’t believe in true love.
Stefan declares the baby should be taken to a secret place and held there until the day after her 16th birthday. She’s to be cared for by a trio of ditzy-sweet fairies (Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple) who seem to have studied the Three Stooges quite carefully.
But Maleficent finds out where the girl (eventually a luminous Elle Fanning) is taken. And she observes from afar. Eventually, despite consistently caustic remarks, she finds herself drawn to the child she has cursed.
The great weapon screenwriter Woolverton wields here is humor, and Jolie’s mostly deadpan delivery is extremely effective. No matter how hardened Maleficent may appear — and her steel-enforced porcelain beauty is mesmerizing — the wisecracks let us know there’s still someone inside.
As usual, humans don’t come off too well in this tale. Better to hang out with the happy trolls and flying sprites of a magical world than to deal with greedy homo sapiens. Such is the escape of fairy tales, though, and “Maleficent” provides that release from reality with beauty, wit and energy. Children of all ages should be dazzled.
Rated PG for sequences of fantasy action and violence, including frightening images
Running time: 97 minutes